JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Attorneys representing U.S Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) and her chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, were granted two more weeks to review evidence and prepare motions in the federal case against the 12-term congresswoman and her top assistant.
Brown and Simmons were in the courtroom Tuesday afternoon for a hearing on charges that they used an unregistered charity to raise $800,000 that prosecutors said they used as a personal "slush fund."
Among the 22 federal charges against Brown are counts of conspiracy, mail and wire fraud, violation of tax laws and concealing material facts on required financial disclosure forms.
Prominent local civil rights attorneys Betsy White and Bill Sheppard represented Brown and Simmons at Tuesday's hearing, but Brown has not yet settled on an attorney of record, according to court documents.
Sheppard told the judge that federal prosecutors have turned over 35 computer discs containing 77,000 documents in evidence, and he said he was told more is coming.
The judge set the next court date for 3 p.m. Aug. 9, saying that the issue of Brown's legal representation needs to be finalized and is critical to move the case forward. The judge said he hoped that in two weeks, "we can put this issue to bed."
Former federal prosecutor Curtis Fallgatter, who is not connected to Brown's case, said the complexity of the case and the cost are factors in choosing an attorney.
“The question obviously will be a financial one, so presumably she's trying to acquire the resources to hire a counsel of her choice. The Constitution gives her that right,” Fallgatter said. “A white collar case like that you know, a half million dollars would not be unexpected for that type of defense, given the complexity of the case. (It) could be less, could be more.”
He said Simmons would likely have separate fees.
Neither Brown nor Simmons would comment as they left the courthouse.
If Brown keeps her current legal team, they told the court they plan to file a motion to delay the trial, which is set for Sept. 6.
Prominent legal duo
Sheppard and White, who are married, are fairly well-known in the local legal community, especially for their work on civil rights cases.
White wasn’t cordial with the media Tuesday. Neither she nor Sheppard had anything to say about the case.
The two sat by Brown’s side during the hearing, escorting her in and out. They’ve been with her since her first appearance on the 22 charges earlier this month.
“She’s got a great choice for lawyers,” Fallgatter said.
Fallgatter, who is now a private attorney, said Sheppard and White are good lawyers for the types of charges Brown faces.
“Bill and his wife have been one of the premier criminal defense attorneys particularly in a white collar arena for years and years,” Fallgatter said.
According to their law firm’s website, Sheppard’s been a lawyer for around 50 years.
"Both icon and iconoclast, Mr. Sheppard is known for representing the famous, the infamous, and the unknown alike," his bio reads.
And White became a lawyer at just 22 years old. She’s been in the business for 36 years. According to her bio, she aims “to protect the constitutional and civil rights of individuals and groups, including women, minorities and prisoners."
Fallgatter said the biggest hurdle for Brown will be the cost, which he suspects Brown would have to fork over before the trial.
“The fact that the counsel has not filed yet -- in federal court, once you file, you’re stuck in a case,” Fallgatter explained. “You can’t get out if there’s a nonpayment.”
Simmons also under fire
Brown was arrested July 8 in Jacksonville and pleaded not guilty the same day the charges were unsealed in a federal grand jury indictment. The indictment also named Simmons, who is also charged with theft of government property.
Simmons, who also pleaded not guilty, is also accused of funneling $735,000 from taxpayers by fraudulently placing his sister, Monica Simmons Isom on the congresswoman's staff and payroll for 16 years. The government says Isom works full time as a Jacksonville elementary school teacher.
Simmons was arrested previously for beating his former girlfriend in 2008 and pleaded guilty.
Geraldine Senteno told the I-TEAM that she witnessed Simmons and Brown spending lavishly for years.
In the indictment, prosecutors say Simmons has worked for Brown for 23 years.
“I had the impression that he was the front man, that he ran everything behind the scenes," Senteno said. "I always thought he would dig his own grave, and he has."
Affect on Brown's campaign?
The same day she was indicted, Brown stepped down as senior Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, but remains a member of Congress and is running for re-election in her drastically re-drawn 5th Congressional District. She is facing two opponents in the Democratic primary to be held one week before her scheduled September trial date.
Brown has fought off challenges over her two decades in Congress and continues to insist that she is innocent of all charges.
“The question will be was any of this willful? Did she know about the alleged fraud, my guess is she didn't or wouldn't know one way or the other,” Fallgatter said.
A judge has granted a Justice Department motion asking that Brown's lawyers be blocked from releasing discovery material to the public that prosecutors will share with them in her fraud trial.
“She's doing the right thing by trying to put her message out of the voters, and she's running for office,” Fallgatter said. “Many wouldn't want to talk about their case, but she should be talking about the issues and defending herself because she has an election coming up.”
If convicted on all charges, Brown could be sentenced up to 357 years in prison and fined $4.8 million.
Simmons could face up to 355 years in prison and $4.75 million in fines.
“She has a good opportunity to defend herself," Fallgatter said. "It's not a slam-dunk case by the government, by any means.”